(short for retrograde rocket
) is a rocket engine
used to provide thrust
opposing the motion of a spacecraft
, thereby causing it to decelerate.
One of the first uses of retrorocket technology was in the Hajile
project initiated by the British Admiralty's Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. Originally a request from the British Army as a method to drop heavy equipment or vehicles from aircraft flying at high speeds and altitudes, the project turned out to be a huge disaster and was forgotten after World War II
. Although some of the tests turned out to be successful, Hajile was too unpredictable to be used in conventional warfare, and by the time the war drew to a close, with no chance to put the project into action, it was shelved.
Use in de-orbital maneuvers
When a spacecraft in orbit
is slowed sufficiently, its altitude decreases to the point at which aerodynamic forces begin to rapidly slow the motion of the vehicle, and it returns to the ground. Without such rockets, spacecraft would remain in orbit for years until their orbits naturally slow, and reenter
the atmosphere at a much later date; in the case of manned flights, long after life support systems have been expended. Therefore it is critical that spacecraft have extremely reliable retrorockets.
Use in Project Mercury
Due to the high reliability demanded by retrorockets, Mercury
spacecraft used a trio of solid fuel, 1000 lbf
) thrust retrorockets strapped to the heat shield on the bottom of the spacecraft that fired for 10 seconds each. One was sufficient to return the spacecraft to earth if the other two failed. Gemini
used a similar system as Mercury, just scaled up to four rockets of 2500 lbf each (11 kN) that burned for 5.5 seconds each. These rockets were part of the Reentry Control System mounted forward of the pressurized cabin.
Use in the Apollo program
The Apollo program
did not require retrorockets for lunar flights, as the flight from the moon was directed to fly the spacecraft directly back to earth, and not enter orbit. However, the flights in earth orbit for tests required retrorockets, so the large, versatile Service Propulsion Module on the Service Module was used to decelerate the spacecraft. The Space Shuttle
would use a similar multipurpose engine for reentry.
However, retrorockets were used to back the S-IC and S-II stages off after their respective shutdowns during the rocket's journey from the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center to Earth Parking Orbit.
Use in the Space Shuttle program
The Space Shuttle Orbital maneuvering system
provides the vehicle with a pair of powerful liquid fueled rockets for both reentry and orbital maneuvering. One is sufficient for a successful reentry, and if both systems should fail, the Reaction control system
can slow the vehicle enough for reentry.
Use in landers
Retrorockets are also used in landing spacecraft on other astronomical bodies, such as the Moon
, as well as enabling a spacecraft to enter an orbit encircling such a body, when otherwise it would scoot past and off into space again. As pointed out above (in connection with Project Apollo
) the main rocket on a spacecraft can be re-oriented to serve as a retrorocket.